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Is there a difference in meaning or can both expressions be used interchangeably?

I also wonder about the strong difference of meaning between bereiten (prepare) and reiten (ride). How is it possible?

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up vote 2 down vote accepted

To the first question: The words are close relatives, but don't exactly mean the same.

Ich bereite das Essen vor.

means I'm preparing for the meal.

Ich bereite das Essen (zu).

means I'm cooking it right now. "Vorbereiten" means "to prepare something in advance" or "to prepare for something", while "(zu)bereiten" can often be simply replaced with "to do something". The later isn't always possible:

Ich bereite mich auf die Prüfung vor.

This cannot be said without "vor".

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Sometimes, it can mean the same: Ich bereite das Bett. and Ich bereite das Bett vor. (In the context of preparing for the night) are equivalent. – Toscho Feb 23 '14 at 17:09

Regarding the second question, that's coincidence. Actually bereiten derives from bereit, it's not the prefix be- added to reiten.

Etymologically reiten, and bereiten are related but today their meaning is different.

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Ich habe den Eindruck, im Wort "zureiten" ist der Zusammenhang teilweise noch erkennbar. – PMF Feb 23 '14 at 15:04

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